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The Olympics have long been a ratings shot in the arm for NBC’s news division — and served as a launch pad for Today personalities. Savannah Guthrie officially took over for Ann Curry during the 2012 London Summer Games. With Hoda Kotb tapped Jan. 2 to succeed Matt Lauer — who was fired in November amid the sexual harassment reckoning still roiling the country — she and Guthrie are now headed to Pyeongchang, South Korea, as the Today show’s first all-female lead anchor team. Joining them will be Libby Leist, the first woman executive producer of the flagship franchise. (Leist was previously the senior producer of the 7 a.m. hour of Today and also led the show’s political and special events coverage; she replaced longtime executive producer Don Nash.)
It’s a recasting of the retrograde male-female dynamic of morning TV. And Kotb and Guthrie became, for a brief social-media spurred moment, the faces of the pay equity debate when they admitted in an interview in January that neither was making “Matt Lauer money.” (Lauer had the longest tenure of any Today anchor at 21 years. He was reportedly making more than $20 million annually when he was fired, but NBC News sources are quick to point out that when he was promoted alongside Katie Couric in 1997, he was making less than her.) Asked about it again, Guthrie quipped: “I don’t even know what Matt Lauer made. So maybe we are!”
The hefty salaries underscore the importance of Today in supporting the rest of the news division, as the show pulls in close to $500 million annually in ad revenue. The NBC morning stalwart has bested ABC’s Good Morning America for 110 consecutive weeks in the critical 24-54 demographic.
Today will broadcast from Pyeongchang’s Gangneung Coastal Center beginning Monday. Guthrie and Kotb will be joined by Al Roker, Natalie Morales, Willie Geist, Craig Melvin and Dylan Dreyer.
Ahead of the Winter Games, The Hollywood Reporter talked with Guthrie, Kotb and Leist about glass ceilings, whether the women will begin their own Olympic tradition a la the Lauer-Al Roker luge spectacle and how long Kotb will continue to pull double duty co-hosting the 10 a.m. hour with Kathie Lee Gifford.
Says Kotb: “Sometimes I look at Savannah in the middle of the show and I say, ‘Oh my God, this really did happen.'”
Did either of you ever harbor aspirations of being an Olympic athlete?
Kotb: I was No. 24 on the Fordham High School basketball team. And to this day, when I see any Olympic event, I get that heart-pounding feeling of being on the foul line and there are two minutes left and you’re like, “Please, God, let me make it.” I know that it would never ever happen in my wildest imagination. But every part of me thinks I’m an athlete inside.
Guthrie: You haven’t seen Hoda with the “Eye of the Tiger.” She will run you right over. And she was made for team sports, the cheer, the whole thing. I, on the other hand, have no athletic ability. But the fun thing about the Olympics is all of us who have no athletic ability get to watch those who do.
Are you two going to do the luge together?
Kotb: That luge thing still leaves me emotionally scarred. I have a feeling that we might do something together that’s a little crazy.
Guthrie: We’re not going to be wearing spandex if I can help it.
Leist: We have producers on the ground who are scouting out locations for the two of them. We’re going to present them with the five craziest options.
Libby, are you the first female executive producer of the flagship Today franchise? Why did it take so long?
Leist: I haven’t thought about why it took so long. I’m just actually very grateful that I have this job. I’m looking at it as an incredible opportunity. It fits everything I’m interested in. I’m a news person, that’s my background. But I’m also totally into pop culture and music and the feature stories that we do. That’s how I’m looking at this job. I’m not thinking of it in terms of male-female.
Hoda, how is the double-duty going — I know you’re not new to it. But how long do you anticipate doing both the 7-9 a.m. shift and the 10 a.m. hour?
Kotb: When you build something with someone, you don’t just say, “That was fun, see you later.” It is part of who I am; Kath and I have established a relationship over the years that’s about more than work. I haven’t really thought of what the beginning and end of that is. It’s just something I do. It’s like breathing. And I don’t think it’s really impacted what I’m doing with Savannah in the morning. I feel like this is one of those times that all those things I learned in local news or at Dateline — I was in Baghdad and Burma and the West Bank and Gaza, all those stories — all of a sudden, everything comes back around and you go, “Oh, yeah.”
Guthrie: It’s nice to see people rediscover that side of Hoda, too. Those who know Hoda’s career, that’s how they first encountered her, on Dateline. And then she created this wonderful bubbly hour with Kathie Lee. Already we’re seeing the news roots of Hoda flourish on the show; she just had two incredibly compelling and important interviews with gymnasts at the center of this [sexual abuse] scandal [Aly Raisman and Simone Biles]. And I don’t think anybody else could have done them the way she did. And I think that just speaks to why she is such a humongous asset. She’s the Swiss army knife. She’s got the scissors, the screwdriver, the nail file and definitely the cork screw.
You’re still reporting on the #MeToo movement. The allegations against casino magnate and Republican donor Steve Wynn and the political implications are only the latest chapter of the #MeToo reckoning. What’s it like to do those stories, given your personal experience with Lauer?
Guthrie: We approach those stores as journalists. Sometimes you do have a connection to [a story] and sometimes you don’t. But the job is to try to cover it with integrity. And that’s what we’re trying to do. I think it’s a fascinating and important time in our culture, and it’s remarkable to be reporting on a cultural moment that people will look back on later. The reason we’re here is because we want to be covering the news, covering what’s important, setting the agenda, being relevant. And right now, that is one of the most relevant stories going.
Gayle King and Norah O’Donnell at CBS This Morning went through the same thing with their colleague Charlie Rose. Have either of them reached out to you?
Guthrie: I saw Gayle the week that it happened on our show. It’s not something that any of us dwell on because it’s very personal and the feelings that everyone has are complex. It’s just not something that you sit around and gossip about. But we are huge supporters of Gayle and Norah, and I think they’re our supporters, too. This is a competitive business, but we’re colleagues and we’re friends. Norah and I go back to the Washington days [at NBC News]. Her office was right next door to mine.
Leist: One of the nicest notes I got when I was named EP was from Norah, who sent me a note that said, “Congratulations on another crack in the ceiling.”
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